Kuwait’s Crisis of Democracy

by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

Politics and protest in Kuwait have come full circle since the first Arab Spring protests started in January 2011. Largely youth-led demonstrations calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammed Al-Sabah culminated in his ousting in November 2011. Predominantly tribal and Islamist opposition candidates then won a landslide majority in the February 2012 National Assembly elections, securing thirty-four out of fifty seats. Four months later, with tensions between the elected parliament and appointed government escalating, the Constitutional Court annulled the election on a technicality andreinstated the previous parliament elected in 2009. This decision sent shockwaves through Kuwait’s political establishment as the reinstated parliament attempted—and failed—to reconvene. When new elections were finally called in October 2012,opposition politicians boycotted the subsequent vote on December 1.

Kuwait’s rollercoaster ride holds implications for political developments across the Persian Gulf states. The country has long been the most progressive in the region, with the most extensive parliamentary and constitutional curbs on ruling family authority. The separation of powers and broadening of political participation started in Kuwait as early as the 1930s and spread rapidly to neighboring states. The 2011 resignation of the prime minister—a senior member of the ruling family—against the expressed wish of his uncle, the emir, was a significant milestone. The sight of a hereditary leader bowing down in response to overwhelming street pressure was a first not only for Kuwait but also for the whole Gulf region. Coming just months after the popular mobilization in Bahrain that briefly threatened to topple the Al-Khalifa family before being crushed by forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the developments in Kuwait underlined the fragility of the Gulf monarchies in the face of the Arab Spring.

As in neighboring Bahrain, the emergence of new youth movements is proving a challenge as much to the established political opposition as it is to the government. These new political actors are crossing powerful “red lines” and are far less willing to respect or play by the “rules of the game.” They are creating a destabilizing dynamic in Kuwaiti politics, as opposition figures adjust their own positions to outflank and co-opt this new constituency. This dynamic was evident in October 2012 as tensions in Kuwait threatened to spiral out of control. In a demonstration in Irada (Change) Square opposite the National Assembly, leading opposition MP Musallim al-Barrak far out-stepped long-established taboos about criticizing the emir. Addressing Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad directly, al-Barrak publicly questioned his authority: “We will not let you, your highness, rule this country on your own… We are not scared of your new batons or the jails you have built.” As the crowd defiantly chanted back “we will not allow you, we will not allow,” a potent new slogan was born amid a spirit of mass defiance against the ruling family.

Also significant is the lack of any consensus or vision for the next phase of Kuwait’s political development. Kuwait, like Bahrain and fellow monarchy Jordan, is caught between groups of increasingly entrenched interests: on the one side, ruling families, whose instinctive response to demands for meaningful reform is to suppress them, and on the other, an energized public and political opposition, which have embraced the Arab Spring calls for greater freedoms, accountability, and participation in governance. This division is calling into question the carefully managed boundaries of permissible opposition that regimes had created in order to generate an image of political plurality. It is noticeable that the only two Persian Gulf parliaments—those of Kuwait and Bahrain—are now devoid of opposition groups, as is Jordan’s. If the public loses faith in political structures, there is a danger that the opposition will migrate from the parliamentary chamber to the streets and become radicalized.

As the eight Arab monarchies (the six Persian Gulf States plus Morocco and Jordan) draw closer together in an attempt to withstand the Arab Spring upheaval, the adage that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link comes to mind. In 2011, the weak link was Bahrain, as its citizens took to the street to protest its rulers; in 2012, the weak link increasingly became Kuwait, where the rising tide of opposition threatened the ruling family’s monopoly on top executive power. Yet any move toward a non-royal prime minister—the core of opposition demands—would constitute a transformative shift in the balance of power and would likely face stiff resistance from other Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia. For this reason, the key questions facing Kuwait are how this deadlock will be broken, when, and whether it will be by consensus and stability or through confrontation and instability.

About the Author

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Research Fellow in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science and an Associate Fellow on the Middle East North Africa Program at Chatham House. He is an expert in the politics and security of the Persian Gulf states.

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